This month, Ly-ann takes a look at what makes an outstanding modern Asian board game.
Since moving back to Singapore and as a game-schooling advocate, I have thought long and hard about what games gain the most traction in the local “mainstream” market. Part of that conversation revolves around how games can teach our kids about the culture they have been born into. As my six and seven year old grow more aware of their Asian identity, it's important for me that they see representations of our Asian-ness in all the different facets of their lives, including the games that we play. To that end, I sought to discover what makes a modern Asian board game and came up with a framework to evaluate those games.
For this exercise, we will put aside production location as a factor, since most board games are manufactured by the world’s factory, China. Instead, Xeo Lye* from Capital Gains Studio, feels that “Asian board games combine the theme, mechanics, and a reflection of Asian habits, culture, and religion into game design”. In fact he would go so far as to say that “Asian published games designed by non-Asian designers and publishers (can) do a great job integrating all the factors together”. He feels that “it is the Asian publisher’s expertise and knowledge of cultural nuances that determines the guiding appeal to the Asian audience.”
One recurring idea is the comparison of modern board games with the ancient and classic Asian games such as Go, Shogi and Xiangqi (Chinese Chess). The outstanding characteristics of these classics are that they are simple to produce, easy to learn but take a lifetime to master. The information is open to all to read, but mastery requires experience. In this regard, an average player will almost find it impossible to beat a person who is more experienced than them. At the other end of the spectrum are games of luck, the most obvious of which are gambling games, which help to equalise the odds of newbies winning at the table.
In my observation, the modern Asian board game sits somewhere between the two. Like its predecessors, gameplay complexity is not heavily layered and rules are easy to learn. The information is open to all and play length is shorter – more like the ‘filler’ games in the international pantheon. On the other hand, modernity has called for more inclusivity in these games, so there are spaces in the game where luck plays a large bearing in a game’s outcome. As a result, Asian audiences reward publishers who have balanced out that luck factor with more take-that mechanics that players can then dish out to their opponents.
This is one reason why you don’t see many heavy-weight games being played in the Asian “mainstream” market. Even though I speak of these modern Asian board games as more prevalent in an Asian mainstream market, it is but a drop in the ocean. One of the biggest print runs in the Singapore market was when the card game Singapore Dream was licensed by SGAG, a Singaporean social media website and news media company, which made it widely available locally. But, when viewed globally, it is but a quirky game around Singapore culture, from an unlikely publisher.
Jay Bernardo**, an Asian game reviewer on cardboardeast.com, has learnt a few things from his last trip to Essen. Asian games have been well-received by the international board game community. Bernardo believes that it is its uniqueness that attracts many of the European gamers who flock the halls with non-European publishers. “A fresh breath of air to the high fantasy, medieval, and railroad themes of American and Euro designed games,” according to Xeo. Asian games, like Let’s Make a Bus Route, Four Gardens, Hanamikoji, The Battle of Red Cliffs and our very own Wok and Roll, continue to push the envelope and have in fact gained favourable attention from the international board game audience.
These examples are of course, Asian-themed, as are the aesthetics used in the games. Their publishers hail from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. There are other titles of course, but generally speaking, the examples of Asian board games above exemplify why these port over well to the larger international board gaming community. Their game complexities vary from Light to Medium, rely on light strategic game play mechanisms, and adopt interfaces that are fairly language independent. Afterall, Asia is home to nearly 2300 languages!
Bernardo has pointed out one other pragmatic consideration of the modern Asian board game. In order to stay afloat, these games need to be available internationally. This means, in terms of design and development, “Asian publishers tend to prefer language independent games in medium-sized boxes. This cuts down on manufacturing and shipping costs and increases the likelihood that the game gets picked up by a publisher in North America or Europe for distribution.” He concludes, at the end of the day, “they’re business folk dressed in gamer clothes. You sell what sells, or you stop selling—and not by choice.”
Does an Asian designer or publisher make a game Asian? Is Macaron, designed by Ta-te Wu, Asian because Wu is from Taiwan, even though the game is about the French pâtisserie? Likewise, is Four Gardens considered Asian because it was published by Korea Board Games even though its designer, Martin Doležal, is from the Czech Republic? How about even more mainstream games like Tsuro whose design and production team are from North America, but uses a very Asian spiritual theme? Bernardo favours the idea that there are no clean cut definitions. “CMON is based in Singapore. They’re technically an Asian publisher. (But) would you classify Blood Rage as an Asian board game? I wouldn’t. I believe in fuzzy labels.”
Labels and stereotypes make ideas easier to grasp and are helpful when getting to know a new subject but soon prove woefully inadequate when one digs deeper. But, using them as silos will mean missing the outlier games that may be just as delightful to bring to the table.
Tang Garden, for example, breaks all the characteristics that we just identified in modern Asian board games. It is a big game with lots of components, full of mini figurines, plays longer, employs complex mechanisms across various player powers, and is designed and produced by an international team. This goes against all the factors that characterise modern Asian board games as mentioned above, except for its oriental theme and visual aesthetics which gives it a beautiful table presence! It is a different kind of modern and Asian board game. I am glad it breaks the mould, because its beauty piques curiosity and made it inclusive; appealing to a wider audience that might otherwise not have been introduced to its theme. And it makes my heart swell to see my heritage in full display on game tables across the world.
It is a great time to be an Asian tabletop board gamer. There are so many new and interesting titles that can appeal to all walks of life. The genre, if you can call it that, is emergent and fuzzy, as it should be. These games represent a culture with a rich history that goes back to the beginning of civilization, that it would be remiss to sideline just because they do not fit neatly into our labels.
Here are some of the games I mentioned, as well as a few others that we think encapsulate those idea shared:
Jixia Academy – Hanamikoji, with the same beloved mechanics, but brand-new art. Originally published by EmperorS4, a board game publisher based in Taiwan.
Get on Board By IELLO. Set in London and New York but originally published in Japan by Saashi as Let’s Make a Bus Route.
Four Gardens, originally published by Korea Boardgames Co., Ltd.
Tang Garden by ThunderGryph Games.
Tsuro by Calliope Games.
Happy Dim Sum published by Mercat Games in Singapore.
Wok and Roll by Origame.
* Xeo Lye is the CEO & Co-Founder of Capital Gains Studio, a tabletop design and publishing studio based in Singapore.
**Jay Bernardo is the host of the Cardboard East blog and YouTube channel. You can also find him @cardboardeast on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.